A Brief Autobiography of the Haymarket Martyr Albert Parsons
Albert Richard Parsons (lived June 20, 1848 to November 11, 1887) was an anarchist labor activist, who along with seven others, was falsely convicted of conspiracy and hanged following a bomb attack on police at the Haymarket Riot on May 4th 1886. May Day was established as the workers holiday around the world in commemoration of these brave men. He wrote this autobiography while in prison awaiting his execution.
I, Albert R. Parsons, was born on the 24th of June 1848 in Montgomery, Alabama. My father Samuel Parsons came from the state of Maine. He married into the Tomkins-Broadwell family out of New Jersey, and settled early on in Alabama, where he established a leather and shoe factory. My father possessed a great deal of common sense and was known as a philanthropist. He was a free thinker and held the highest position in the anti-alcohol movement in Louisiana and Alabama. My mother was a believing Methodist and was known widely as a very smart and sincere woman. I had nine siblings. My ancestors were among the first settlers in this land; the first Parsons came from England and landed in 1632 at Narragansett Bay. This Parsons family and their descendants have played an active and decisive roll in the different social, religious, political, and revolutionary movements.
I was not yet two years old when my mother died. I lost my father at the age of five. My older brother, who after his marriage had settled in Tyler in Texas, was named my new custodian. Between 1851 and 1853 he was the owner and editor of the Tyler “Telegraph.” Two years later our family moved to Johnson near the Texas border. We lived here about three years on a ranch and then moved to Hill County to buy a farm in the valley of the Brazos River. Living in this border area, I had learned already in my early years to ride and hunt and handle weapons and pistols, and was considered in these areas an expert.
In 1859 I went to Waco, Texas. After I had lived there with my sister, the wife of Major Boyd, and had gone to school, I secured a seven year apprenticeship at the “Daily News” in Galveston to learn the printing trade. I worked not only as a type-setting apprentice, but also as newspaper messenger. In a year and a half I had developed from a country boy to a city dweller. In 1861, as the rebellion of the slaveholders broke out, I decided, even though I was only thirteen, to join a local volunteer brigade.
Towards the end of the war I returned to Waco in Texas. I started doing business with a man, and traded a good mule for a forty acre corn field, that had yet to be harvested. I employed a number of former slaves, paid them a decent wage (the first wage they had ever earned), and we harvested the crop together. From selling the crop, I received some money that was exactly enough to pay the tuition for six months at the University of Waco. After that I worked in a printing house as a typesetter.
In 1868 in Waco I started a weekly newspaper called “The Spectator.” I advocated the position in my newspaper that the South should accept the terms of surrender of the North, and supported the measures that would ensure the rights of colored people. I became a Republican and went into politics. By doing so I earned the hatred and contempt of many of my previous war comrades, neighbors, and of the Ku Klux Klan. My political career was full of excitement and interesting experiences. I worked hard campaigning, in order to spread my convictions. The slaves, who had in most parts of the land just received the right to vote, recognized and considered me as their friend, whereas many of my previous acquaintances considered me a traitor and a turncoat. “The Spectator” was unable to survive for long in such poisonous atmosphere.
In 1869 I became the traveling correspondent for the Houston “Daily Telegraph” and traveled by horse throughout the northwest region of Texas. On one trip through the district of Johnson I met for the first time the cutest Spanish girl of Indian origins, who three years later became my wife. I stayed in the area to be near her as long as I could, and finally finished my trip with excellent success.
I married in the fall of 1872 in Austin and joined my young wife in Philadelphia, and from there we went together to Chicago. I immediately became a member of the book printer’s union, local number 16, and worked for a time unofficially for the “Inter-Ocean,” before I was officially employed by the “Times.” I stayed there for about 4 years.
About 1874 I began to busy myself with the “worker questions.” The working classes of Chicago were attempting at that time to convince the Relief and Aid Society to give information of the whereabouts of a large sum of money – namely several million dollars that was designated for assistance to the poor. The money had been collected through donations from the population, to mitigate even a little the hardship of the inhabitants of the city which had resulted from the Great Fire of 1871. The workers contended that the association had not used the money in the way those who had donated it meant it to be used, and that speculators had misused the money for their own purposes. All the newspapers attacked the party on behalf of the association, and at the same time attacked the workers as “communists, robbers, and idlers.” I began to look closely into this issue and came to the conclusion that the charges brought against the association by the workers were legitimate. I also recognized that the wealthy had used the newspapers as their mouthpiece, in order to exploit and misuse their position of power relative to the workers in exactly the same way that the last slave owners had with respect to freed slaves.
This is the time from which my interest and engagement in the worker movement originated. The wish to learn more about the movement brought me in contact with socialists and their writings. They at that time were the only ones that protested against the wealthy mercantilist-led impoverishment of the people, and against the accompanying evils of ignorance, alcoholism, and criminality, and who showed the way toward their abolishment. Those days in Chicago there were only a few socialists, or “communists,” as the newspapers liked to call them.
In 1876 a congress of organized workers was founded in Philadelphia. I followed its progress very closely. Eventually there was a split between the conservatives and the radicals. The radicals withdrew and founded the Worker’s Party of the United States. In the previous year I had joined the Social Democratic Party of America. Both parties merged a year later to form the Socialist Worker’s Party of North America. From the very beginning this organization was under pressure from the monopoly capitalists and the organization’s members were stigmatized in the capitalist press.
I was surprised, and at the same time so embittered, that I felt compelled to address the people directly, in order to explain and expound the goals and principals of socialism, for I was strongly convinced that they were right and necessary. So I began to devote myself with all my strength to the work of enlightening my colleagues. First we began with the uneducated wage workers that until that time didn’t understand us; then we continued with the workers who had higher positions, who exploited their colleagues and didn’t represent our interests as workers. I became, without even noticing it, a worker agitator and brought upon myself the hatred of the capitalists. But these insults and slanders only served to strengthen me in my commitment to the great work of social liberation.
In 1887 the Great Railroad Strike began. On the 21st of July a mass meeting took place on Market Street, near Madison, which was attended by roughly 30,000 workers. I was given the task of speaking to the crowd. In my speech, I argued for the program of the worker’s party, which envisioned general State-control of the means of production, transport, commerce, and communication, and taking them out of the hands and custody of private persons, corporations, monopolies, and syndicates. In order to accomplish this goal, I argued, it would be extremely important for the wage workers to join the party. During the meeting there was a lot of excitement among the listeners, and no lack of discipline. As I went to work the next day as normal in the printing house of the Times, I found that my name had been crossed off the list of people employed there. I had been fired and my name put on a black list.
On the very same day I applied to for a job at the Tribune, which was located on the fifth floor. I was trying to find a night job and simultaneously to work together with other men of my occupation, since I had the feeling they sympathized with me. The work began at 7 o’ clock evenings. It went until eight in the morning, and I was discussing the strike with the chairman of the executive committee of our union. He asked me how the whole thing might end, as suddenly someone grabbed me from behind, spun me around, and asked if my name was Parsons. Two men held me firmly on my right and on my left and began dragging me towards the door. They were complete strangers. I protested as they cursed at me and began pushing me down the stairs. Beforehand, one of the men had placed a pistol on my head and told me, “It wouldn’t bother me at all to put a bullet through your head.” The other told me, “Shut up or I’ll we’ll throw you right out the window!” As we reached the ground floor of the house, they stopped and said, “Get out of here! If we ever see you here again we’ll . . .” It was only a few steps to the exit, and I opened the door and escaped.
On both of the following days the striking workers met together of their own volition and for no apparent reason in different places throughout the city. They were then beaten, shot at, and dispersed by militias and the police. That evening a peaceful meeting of 3,000 workers on Market Street was broken up. I saw it with my own eyes. Over a hundred policemen were dispatched to disrupt this peaceful meeting. They fired off gunshots and pummeled the workers from two sides. Members of the printing, rail casters and other unions, which had been regularly holding monthly and weekly meetings, found that the entrances to their meeting halls were blocked by the police, and were told that the police chief had forbidden all manner of meetings of the workers. All mass events and union meetings were busted up by the police. It even happened that at a meeting of the wood workers’ union, held to negotiate with those agitating for the eight-hour work day, the police broke down the door, violently entered, beat the workers, and opened fire on them with their weapons. They killed one worker and injured several others quite severely. On the following day, the 1st regiment of the National Guard of Illinois shot at a crowd of several thousand men, women and children, who were simply observing events from a distance, and who at no time had taken part in the strike. Several people were killed.
After the railroad strike I remained on the black list for employment for two more years and was not in the position to find any work. My family suffered and had to struggle greatly to survive. I was elected three times by the workers for the city council, twice for regional secretary, and was nominated once for congress. The workers party doubled its membership, from 6,000 to 12,000, in fewer than four years. In 1878, primarily through my efforts and initiatives, the association of labor unions for Chicago and the surrounding area was established. I was the association’s first president, and was re-elected to the position. I advocated strongly for the unions to support the movement for the eight-hour work day. In 1879 I was a delegate to the national congress of the Socialist Worker’s Party in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, and was nominated as a candidate for American presidential election. I politely declined this honor, since I had not yet reached the minimum age of 35 years. But it was the first time in the history of the United States that a worker was elected by workers for this office.
In the voting for spring and fall in the years 1878 and 1880, the politicians began to stuff the voting boxes with false ballots and to undertake other outrageous attacks against the party. At that time the effectiveness of political reforms became clear to me. Many workers gradually lost their faith in the power of voting and on the protection through the law for the poor. Some contended that political freedom without economic freedom was an empty phrase. Others claimed that, in contrast to the propertied classes, the un-propertied class already had no voting rights, because when the livelihood of one person is controlled by another, then this other person can influence one’s voting choice. All this led us to become convinced that the government and its laws exclusively represent and protect the interests of the capitalists, and that the primary function of any government is to uphold the economic subordination of the workers to the owners of the means of production.
In 1880, I withdrew from all political activities in the worker’s party, as I had come to the conclusion that the long work days together with low wages meant in practice that the right of workers was useless. They robbed the workers as a class of the necessary time and means to organize political action or to do away with legislation passed by the capitalist class to oppress the workers. Working in the party had taught me that intimidation, hypocrisy, corruption and terror grow out of exactly those conditions which made the working people poor and the idlers rich. As a result of that, I set myself above all to work toward shortening the length of the normal work day, so that the wage workers could have the opportunity to attain their interests.
Several individual unions decided to send me to different states, to speak to the worker’s organizations of the country about the question of the eight-hour work day. In January of 1880, the Eight-Hour League of Chicago sent me to Washington as a delegate to the national Conference of Labor Reformers.
During this exact time, many conversations took place, in which the topic of the right to property, and of the rights of majorities and minorities. In the course of these arguments, a new organization was founded, the International Working People’s Association. In 1881 I went as a delegate to its founding congress, and I was there in 1883 in Pittsburgh, where the Association became a member of the International, which had already established roots in Europe, and which had originally been founded at the World Congress of Workers in London in 1864.
In all these things I took an active, personal interest. On October 1st 1884, the International founded a weekly newspaper in Chicago, The Alarm. I was given the post of editor, and remained in that post until the seizure and suppression of the newspaper by the government authorities on the 5th of May, 1886, in connection with the Haymarket tragedy. In 1881 the capitalist press had begun to label us as anarchists, and to denounce us as enemies of each and every law and government. They accused us of hating “Law and Order,” and of inciting conflict and confusion. Convinced of the correctness of our goal, we did not allow ourselves to be swayed. Gradually we began to identify ourselves as Anarchists, and to love this word, which was originally meant as an insult and slur, and to defend it with pride. What’s in a name? But sometimes names express ideas – and ideas are everything.
Anarchy will free humanity from all chains and say: “Go! You are free! Take everything into possession, enjoy everything!” We don’t say to the wage slaves “You should, you must use violence.” No. Why should we say such a thing, when we so clearly know, that they will simply have to act in such a way; that they will be forced to use violence, in order to protect themselves from those who oppress, demean, enslave, and destroy them. Millions of workers are anarchists today without knowing it. Under the compulsion of a thing, the consequences of which they can feel, but which they don’t fully understand, move them unknowingly and without ceasing toward the social revolution. Spiritual freedom! Political equality! Economic independence!
An exact analysis of the laws of the class struggle shows that the struggle for the eight-hour work day must be judged a failure. The International has supported it anyway, because it was the struggle of one class against another – and therefore historical, evolutionary, and necessary. And secondly, we couldn’t stand off to the side, and be misunderstood by our brothers. So we supported the struggle as best we could. I was the permanent representative of the skilled-and unskilled labor unions to the central Labor Confederation. I spoke in the name of 20,000 organized workers in Chicago, and did everything in my power to push the struggle for the eight-hour work day along. I feared that a conflict would erupt between the authorities, who represented the employers, and the wage slaves, who were represented only by themselves. The defenseless men, women and children would be defeated when threatened with firings, black lists, and lockouts; when the fear of hunger and misery, and of the bayonettes of the militias and the billy-clubs of the police, would in the end become too great. I do not advocate the use of violence, but I condemn the Capitalists, who use violence to try to keep the workers in subordination, and I explained that such an eventuality may force the workers to use the same violent means for their self-defense.
Translated by William Van Wagenen from the German text first published in “Die Deutschen Anarchisten von Chicago; Oder Warum Amerika den 1. Mai Nicht Kennt,” by Friederike Hausmann, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 1998.